People who attended a Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help (REACH) meeting in Warsaw last week joined hands and prayed. Photo by Catherine Clabby, courtesy of NC Health News

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By Catherine Clabby, North Carolina Health News

Standing before dozens of allies in a long battle against stench and other environmental nuisances they blame on eastern North Carolina hog farms, Devon Hall broke into song.

At a meeting of the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help (REACH), which he helped found, Hall last week chose something joyful, the Kool & the Gang classic “Celebrate.”

“We should celebrate our victories. Even those that may appear to be small. This is no a small matter here, trust me,” said Hall, waving a new agreement between state environmental regulators, REACH and other North Carolina hog farm critics.

In the pact, North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality leaders agreed to tighten oversight of livestock farms that raise some 9 million swine statewide, with most confined in long barns where animals excrete lots of feces and urine.

Farmers pipe that waste into uncovered lagoons and then, to make room for more, spray it on adjacent land, something critics have long said has drifted over nearby residences and fouled small waterways, which growers dispute.

The DEQ pact comes on the heels of a separate victory for lagoon-and-spray opponents: A federal court win in the first of more than 20 lawsuits hog farm neighbors have filed against Murphy Brown, the world’s largest pork producer that pays operators to run the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).

In other words, after decades of protests, detective work with out-of-town researchers and lawyers, and lots of complaints to the government, critics of the environmental toll from high-production hog farming recently have scored some substantial wins.

“North Carolina is kind of the front line for the development of law around the interaction of industrial agriculture and its impact on the environment and on neighbors,” said Daniel E. Estrin, a lawyer and advocacy director for the national group Waterkeeper Alliance.

On paper for now

The document Hall waved last week before mostly black residents of hog farm country and others resulted from a 2014 civil rights violation complaint that REACH, the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network (NCEJN) and the Waterkeeper Alliance filed with the Environmental Protection Agency.

It charged that DEQ, through its animal waste disposal permit system, allowed some 2,000 CAFOs here to use inadequate and outdated waste-disposal systems. That practice has an “unjustified disproportionate impact” on African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans living nearby, a violation of civil rights protections, they also charged.

As the NC Pork Council accurately has stressed, the settlement does not conclude that DEQ’s permitting system, which sets rules for waste disposal designed to prevent pollution, violates anyone’s civil rights.

“It is without question that this is the proper conclusion to this unfounded allegation,” the council’s statement says. “We look forward to working with NCDEQ and other stakeholders in regard to the many rules and regulations that apply to our farms.”

Truth delivered daily

But as written, the agreement does require DEQ to take new steps to examine whether such discrimination claims are true. In addition to new water and air monitoring, DEQ has committed to deploy “environmental justice” mapping to quantify who lives near clusters of these farms.

The mapping combines geographic, demographic and environmental data. This allows analysts to probe whether governments grant permits to operations with pollution risks, say landfills or factories, that are disproportionately located close to homes of people who are racial minorities, attorney Elizabeth Haddix explained at last week’s meeting in Warsaw, North Carolina.

“Where there are 16 poultry operations and 10 hog operations and you’ve got all these [minority] communities near them, it will show that,” said Haddix, who works at the Durham-based Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights and is one of two lawyers who joined Hall in describing the developments at REACH last week.

DEQ, which unveiled a new Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board this month, also agreed to add new provisions to a draft of its swine general permit, which is up for renewal this year, including language forbidding DEQ inspectors from giving growers advanced notice that they will visit to investigate a citizen complaint.

Always contentious

REACH and other hog CAFO critics in and near Duplin, the top hog producing county in the country, have long collaborated with people who live far from CAFO spray fields. That includes the state’s riverkeepers, who monitor the quality of this state’s waterways, civil rights lawyers and public health researchers.

Proof of the partnership are two large posters hung within REACH’s tidy headquarter describing research, including one study REACH contributed to that used DNA analysis to document that local hog farm workers are exposed to antibiotic-resistant microbes usually detected in swine, not people.

Title VI of the 1964 federal Civil Rights Act forbids discrimination by programs receiving federal funding, which includes EPA grants to North Carolina and other states. Pursuing the Title VI complaints against DEQ was a slow and difficult process said Hall, Haddix and others who led the charge, including Will Hendrick, an attorney with the Waterkeeper Alliance. For one, it produced friction.

In December 2015, the National Pork Producers Council and the North Carolina Pork Council asked the EPA to let it intervene in the civil rights complaint, noting that any resolution would affect thousands of North Carolinians in the $2.5 billion state pork industry. The citizen groups and the riverkeepers opposed that. But the following month, five pork industry representatives, including a lawyer from a national trade group, appeared at what was supposed to be a confidential mediation meeting between DEQ and the groups that filed the civil rights complaint in Chapel Hill.

A DEQ staff member supported the industry group’s wish to join the meeting, Haddix said. The hog farm critics rejected that, later amending their EPA complaint to accuse DEQ of failing to shield them from intimidation, which NC Pork Council leaders said was a misinterpretation.

“Our goal was to cooperate, not intimidate … We wanted to hear their concerns and work with them,” former Pork Council CEO Deborah Johnson wrote in a statement submitted, by request, to UNC Board of Governors last year. The letter was delivered four months before the board forbade advocacy by UNC university centers, including the UNC-Chapel Civil Rights Center where Haddix then worked.

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In September 2016, during Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration, DEQ general counsel Sam Hayes asked the EPA to drop the civil rights complaint, saying it was redundant with the hog-farm-nuisance lawsuits some 500 neighbors had filed against Murphy Brown. Instead, an EPA External Civil Rights Compliance Office (ECRCO) letter to DEQ in January 2017 noted a “deep concern about the possibility that African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans have been subjected to discrimination as the result of NC DEQ’s operation of the Swine Waste General Permit program …”

Regarding intimidation, the EPA office raised multiple concerns. “Particularly egregious instances brought to ECRCO’s attention include a local industrial swine facility operator entering the home of an elderly African-American woman and shaking the chair she sat in while threatening her and her family with physical violence if they continued to complain about the odors and spray; the firing of a gun in the air when an African-American REACH member tried to speak to a person sitting on their porch; and a truck that sped up and swerved toward a Riverkeeper who was standing on the side of a public road teaching a group of volunteers how to sample water from public ditches,” the letter stated.

In March, DEQ, now under Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper appointee Michael Regan, agreed to start confidential mediation meetings with just the complainants. These meetings resulted in the settlement.

Waiting for more

Reports on lots of technical details shared at the REACH meeting last Wednesday in Warsaw prompted applause. But near the end of the evening, one veteran in this conflict said she was disappointed that lagoon and spray systems will remain.

“Seems like we’re doing the same thing over and over again. And there is no resolution,” said Elsie Herring, who lives on Duplin County land that her grandfather bought in 1891. She has complained about nuisances from a hog farm since it started spraying waste across the road from the home in the mid 1990s.

Haddix agreed. But she added that people in counties with high-volume livestock farms now have new leverage to encourage change, including the use of more expensive “super soil” technology that would treat waste,

“We are holding the point of a sword at them and backing them up against the wall,” the lawyer said, describing a long-term strategy. “It is going to be very difficult for them with this Title VI agreement, with the nuisance lawsuits and with whatever other lawsuit we file next to challenge this system.”

NC Health News

North Carolina Health News is an independent, not-for-profit, statewide news organization dedicated to covering health care in North Carolina employing the highest journalistic standards of fairness, accuracy and extensive research. NCHN seeks to become the premiere source for health reporting in North Carolina. Visit NCHN at northcarolinahealthnews.org.

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